Offseason Questions Abound for Grizzlies

By Don Wade

Maybe the fans standing and cheering moments before the Grizzlies were swept out of the Western Conference Finals were simply saying thank you for a great season, a franchise-best 56-win season and the team’s deepest playoff run in history.

Or maybe, for some, it was a realization that as the final seconds ticked away there was a chance they were witnessing an end of an era.

The season now finished, still-sort-of-new Grizzlies controlling owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien will be scrutinizing everything Grizzly. They will evaluate the roster, of course, and they will presumably talk seriously with coach Lionel Hollins about a new contract (more on that in a moment).

The best season in franchise history moves into the offseason where major decisions include whether to bring back head coach Lionel Hollins, and Jerryd Bayless, who could look for other opportunities. 

AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Tony Allen, the player who has led the charge of the team’s Grit and Grind culture, is a free agent and has said he “bleeds blue” and wants to return. Allen is both a fan favorite and a Pera favorite so it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which he would not come back.

But money will figure into everything the Grizzlies do and don’t do this offseason. Remember Hollins’ snarky comment after the Rudy Gay trade?

“When you have champagne tastes, you can’t be on a beer budget,” he said.

Later, Hollins made nice, made clear he was a team player and led the new-look Grizzlies to a strong finish and the uncharted territory of the Western Conference Finals. But what Hollins said then, about the franchise being on a beer budget – at least as compared to big-market teams – is no less true today.

So, there is no reason to believe the Grizzlies will make decisions that lead them toward the league’s luxury tax. Meantime, Hollins and his agent will want a nice hike from his current $2.3 million salary and probably at least a three-year deal. Hollins also wants to remain in Memphis, but he never had negotiating leverage when Michael Heisley owned the team and he won’t come back now if the Grizzlies want to pay him in growl towels and warm fuzzies. Especially not with other teams – reportedly the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets – circling overhead and hoping to swoop in and steal Hollins.

Thus, negotiations could get sticky. Still under contract until June 30, the Grizzlies likely won’t allow other teams to talk to Hollins before then. So there is a window of opportunity to get something done. But when Levien addressed the media one day after the season ended, he continued to sound less than emphatic about bringing Hollins back.

“What I would say at this point is that, up to this point, we have said we didn’t want to sort of negotiate or talk about his contractual status publicly,” Levien said. “And I think we’re going to stick with that.”

What to make of that evasiveness? One possibility is that Levien so wants to improve the roster – never a cheap undertaking – that he is willing to let Hollins go if his contract demands, both in money and in terms, get into an uncomfortable area (probably anything more than two years, and maybe anything much beyond $3 million per season).

The Memphis Grizzlies enter the first offseason with new chairman Robert Pera, left, and CEO Jason Levien making calls on the future of the team. Among the decisions include what to do about pending-free agent Tony Allen.

Daily News File/Lance Murphey

One long-held theory is that the new ownership group would be willing to let Hollins leave and elevate assistant Dave Joerger at a salary less than what Hollins earned this season. Financially, it makes sense. The risk: at least initial backlash from a core of players angry the Grizzlies wouldn’t pay Hollins what they thought he deserved.

Allen, 31, made $3.3 million this season and again was a first-team All-Defense selection. Any number of teams might view Allen as a much-needed change agent and be willing to offer him a significant raise. Allen’s agent is likely to want a three-year deal; the Grizzlies might be reluctant to go beyond two years.

Reserve guard Jerryd Bayless is also expected to test the free-agent market rather than just return for $2.9 million next season; there are places Bayless could compete for a starting job.

Levien knocked down the Zach Randolph trade rumors during the season, but Z-Bo’s dismal Western Conference Finals raises concerns anew about paying him $34 million over the next two years. A trade would be complicated and a public relations challenge, but it’s not impossible, either.

“We can play together better, but I certainly think we can add talent,” Levien said. “More playmakers and more shot makers. We could use more depth.”

No argument with any of that.

But in the coming weeks we will see what ownership is willing, and not willing, to do. We will see if this playoff run has inspired them to chase after champagne tastes (pay for Hollins and Allen and key new additions), or if those thoughts will be repressed in a sobering commitment to a beer budget.